• sarcophagus •
sahr-kah-fê-gês • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A decorative stone burial chamber above ground.
Notes: Today's Good Word has so dominated the rest of its family that most of us have forgotten that it literally means "carnivorous, flesh-eating" (see Word History). The adjective, sarcophagous, preserves that sense, as does sarcophagy "the eating of flesh (meat)". If you are a carnivore, you are also a sarcophage [sahr-kê-fayj] "meat-eater". You may use this word rather than carnivore if you prefer the words English pilfered from Greek to those it snitched from Latin. The plural of sarcophagus is sarcophagi, pronounced [sahr-kah-fê-jee] or [sahr-kah-fê-gai].
In Play: Since sarcophagus refers to a dismal enclosure, it begs analogy with any uncomfortable enclosed space: "I really need an outside office with a window; my current office is like a sarcophagus." An office like that does not encourage fresh ideas. It does suggest that we expand the metaphor a bit to this: "His head is a sarcophagus of ideas that he has been fed but not acted on." But the basic suite of words referring to the consumption of flesh could be more fun: "I don't mind fish and fowl, but I'm not an avid sarcophage by any means." That should bring you back into the conversation at the dinner table.
Word History: Today's Good Word comes from Greek sarkophagos "flesh-eating, carnivorous" as used in the phrase (lithos) sarkophagos "flesh-eating (stone)". This was the word for limestone among the ancient Greeks because they believed that limestone actually consumed flesh. The adjective is based on sarx, sarkos "flesh" + phagein "to eat". Sarx also underlies sarcasm, from Greek sarkazmos from the verb sarkazein "to bite the lips in rage". It also underlies a cancer that produces a fleshy excrescence, known as sarcoma. The root -phag- is found in many English words referring to eating, such as hippophagy "horseflesh-eating" and xylophagy "wood-eating". (We hope our gratitude to Jeremy Busch for suggesting today's Good Word raises his spirits higher than a sarcophagus.)
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